Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/April 1899/The Wheat Problem Again
|THE WHEAT PROBLEM AGAIN.|
By EDWARD ATKINSON.
IN a recent article in the North American Review, Mr. John Hyde, the statistician of the United States Department of Agriculture, a gentleman of very high authority and repute, presents this problem in such terms as to throw a doubt upon the validity of any forecast of the potential increase in the product of wheat, or, in fact, of any crop in this country. Without referring to myself by name, he yet makes it very plain that he does not attach any value to my recent forecast of wheat production printed in the Popular Science Monthly for December, 1898.
On the other hand, he rightly says that since Tyndall's address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874 no treatise presented to that association has excited so general an interest or provoked so much unfavorable criticism as Sir William Crookes's recent utterances on the subject of the approaching scarcity in the supply of wheat.
Mr. Hyde disclaims any intention to give his own views, but yet no one can read his treatise without noting a substantial agreement with Sir William Crookes, perhaps almost unconsciously to himself. In his closing paragraph he says: "To discuss the extent to which under conceivable conditions the United States may, notwithstanding the somewhat dubious outlook, still continue to contribute to the food supply of other nations, would be little more than speculation."
The Italics are my own.
I venture to point out that the use of the word "speculation" is an example of many instances. Like a dog, one may give a word a bad name, yet it may be a good dog and a very good word when rightly used. In the true and very innocent meaning of the word "speculation" we find exactly what the public has a right to expect and even to demand from the Department of Agriculture. In Webster's Dictionary I find that, when used in such a connection as this problem of the potential of this country in farm productions, the word "speculation" stands for "a mental view of anything in its various aspects and relations; contemplation; intellectual examination."
If any "mental view" has yet been taken in the Department of Agriculture of the proportion of the land of this country which may be termed "arable," I have yet to find the record. If any "contemplation" has been devoted to the proportions of this arable land which may be devoted to different crops in each section, I have been remiss in not securing the reports. If any "mental view" has been taken of the relative area now devoted to each principal crop, and that which may be so devoted hereafter in order to meet the prospective demand upon the land, either for the supply of our own population or of other nations, where is the record? If there is no such "speculation" now of record, is it not time that a true agricultural survey corresponding to our geologic and geodetic surveys should be entered upon? I have reason to believe that such surveys have been made by many European states in which all the arable land in some kingdoms is classified, listed, and so recorded that any one wishing to know the best place for any special product can get the information by reference to the proper department of the Government.
I have had occasion to make several studies of this kind. In order to inform myself on the potential of the South in the production of cotton, I undertook a study of the physical geography and climatology of the cotton States and of other cotton-producing countries nearly forty years ago. The results of this research were first given in Cheap Cotton by Free Labor, published in 1861. In that pamphlet and in many treatises following, finally in an address in Atlanta, in 1880, a true forecast or "speculation" or "intellectual examination" will be found of the production of the cotton fiber, the potential of the future and of the cotton-seed-oil industry, then almost unheard of in this country. In 1880 I also entered upon my first "speculation" (not in the market) on the lines of a "contemplation" or forecast of the effect of agricultural machinery applied to our wheat land, coupled with the prospective reduction in the cost of carrying wheat to England, upon the condition of the American farmer and the British landlord. That forecast of prosperity to our farmers in the supply of bread at low cost to our kin beyond the sea has been justified at every point and in every detail. I therefore ventured to review Sir William Crookes's address, and I am well assured that what Mr. Hyde now calls a "somewhat dubious outlook" is subject to no doubt whatever as to our ability to continue our full supply for domestic consumption and export for the next century.
Let me now repeat again what I have often said: statistics are good servants, but very bad masters. I long since ceased to put any great reliance upon averages of crops, wages, or products covering wide areas and varying conditions, unless I could find out, first, the personal equation of the man who compiled them; second, ascertain what he knew himself about the subject of which his statistics or figures were the symbols; and, third, unless I could verify these great averages from one or more typical areas of farm land, or from one or more representative factories or workshops, of the conditions of which I could myself obtain personal information.
General statistics and averages of farm products and earnings I regard with more suspicion than almost any others because of the immense variation in conditions.
I have sometimes almost come to the conclusion that so many of the figures of the United States census are mere statistical rubbish as to throw a doubt on nearly all the schedules. Yet without accurate statistics on many points, many of them yet to be secured, the conduct of our national affairs must become as uncertain as would be the conduct of any great business corporation without a true ledger account and a trial balance. Hence the necessity for a permanent census bureau and for a careful "speculation" or "intellectual" and intelligent examination and "contemplation" or study of the facts about our land by which our future welfare must be governed.
A good beginning has been made by the authorities of many States, yet more by the body of well-trained men in charge of the Agricultural Experiment Station, in whose support too much can not be said. To them I appealed when trying to get an adequate conception of our potential in wheat.
When we think of the blunders which have been made in very recent years, we may well have some suspicion that we may still be very ignorant on many points about our own country. Who really knows very much about the great middle section of the South, what is called the "Land of the Sky," comprising the upland plateaus and mountain sections of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, eastern Tennessee, and Kentucky? Within this area, as large as France and twice as large as Great Britain, will be found timber and minerals equal to both the countries named, and a potential in agriculture equal to either, as yet very sparsely populated.
Yet under a craze for centrifugal expansion we are now in danger of trying to develop tropical islands far away, already somewhat densely peopled, where white men can not work and live, to our detriment, danger, and loss, while we fail to see that if we expand centripetally by the occupation and use of the most healthy and productive section of our own country, we may add immensely to our prosperity, our wealth, to our profit without cost and without militarism. This sparsely settled Land of the Sky is greater in area and far greater in its potential than the Philippine Islands, Cuba, and Porto Rico combined. Verily, it seems as if common sense were a latent and sluggish force, often endangered by the noisy and blatant influence of the venal politician and the greed of the unscrupulous advocates of vassal colonies who now attempt to pervert the power of government to their own purposes of private gain.
Witness the blunders of the past:
We nearly gave away Oregon because it was held not to be worth retaining.
When the northern boundary of Wisconsin was being determined, it was put as far north as it was then supposed profitable farming could ever extend, excluding Minnesota, now one of our greatest sources of wheat.
The Great American Desert in my own school atlas covered a large part of the most fertile land now under cultivation.
What blunders are we now making for lack of "speculation" or "intellectual examination" as to the future of American farming and farm lands?
On one point to which Mr. Hyde refers I must cry peccavi. He rebukes the editor of the Popular Science Monthly for admitting an article in which a potential of 400,000,000 bushels of wheat is attributed to the State of Idaho. The total depravity of the type-writing machine caused the mechanism to spell Montana in the letters I-d-a-h-o. What I imputed to Idaho is true of Montana, if the Chief of the Agricultural Experiment Stations of Montana is a competent witness, if all its arable land were devoted to wheat. It will be observed that I mentioned Idaho incidentally (meaning Montana), taking no cognizance of the estimate given, because it was at present of no practical importance.
I have expressed my distrust of great averages in respect to agriculture and farm products.
In illustration of this fallacy, the figures presented by Mr. Hyde will now be dealt with. It is held that in 1930, which is the year when Sir William Crookes predicts starvation among the breadeating people of the world for lack of wheat (as if good bread could only be made from wheat), the population of this country may be computed at 130,000,000. The requirements of that year for our own consumption Mr. Hyde estimates at 700,000,000 bushels of wheat, 1,250,000,000 bushels of oats, 3,450,000,000 bushels of corn (maize), and 100,000,000 tons of hay; and, although other products are not named by him, we may assume a corresponding increase.
Subsequently Mr. Hyde gives the present delusive average yields per acre of the whole country, and then throws a doubt on the future progress of agricultural science, saying, "Whatever agricultural science may be able to do in the next thirty years, up to the present time it has only succeeded in arresting that decline in the rate of production with which we have been continually threatened." Without dealing at present with this want of and true consideration of or "speculation" upon the progress made in the last decade under the lead of the experiment stations and other beginnings in remedying the wasteful and squalid methods that have been so conspicuous in pioneer farming, let us take Mr. Hyde's averages and see what demand upon land the requirements of 1930 will make, even at the present meager average product per acre.
Mr. Hyde apparently computes this prospective product as one that will be required for the domestic consumption of 130,000,000 people by ratio to our present product. He ignores the fact that our present product suffices for 75,000,000, with an excess of live stock, provisions, and dairy products exported nearly equal in value to all the grain exported, and in excess of the exports of wheat. If we can increase proportionally in one class of products, why not in another? Whichever pays best will be produced and exported.
1897 and 1930 compared.—Data of 1897
|Products.||Average per acre.||Area required.|
|Total in square square miles.||29,3000||square miles|
All other farm crops carry the total to less than 400,000 square miles now under the plow, probably not exceeding 360,000.
Prospective demand of 1930, at the same meager average product per acre, without progress in agricultural science:
|Crop called for.||Per acre.||Area required.|
|Maize||3,450,000,000||bushels.||28. 8||bushels.||226,600||square miles.|
|Total in square miles||488,400||square miles.|
Assuming all land under the plow in 1930 in the ratio as above, the area of all now in all crops 400,000 square miles—an excessive estimate—that year (1930) will call for 667,000 square miles of arable land in actual cultivation.
I have been accustomed to consider one half our national domain, exclusive of Alaska, good arable land in the absence of any "speculation" on that point in the records of the Department of Agriculture; but from the returns given by the chiefs of the experiment stations and secretaries of agriculture of the States hereafter cited, that estimate may be increased probably to two thirds, or 2,000,000 square miles of arable land out of a total of 3,000,000 square miles, omitting Alaska.
Assuming that we possess 2,000,000 square miles of arable land, capable at least of producing the present meager average product cited above, the conditions of 1930 will be graphically presented on the following diagram:
Prospective Use of Land in the Year 1930 on Present Crop Average.
|70,800||81,600||109,400||Roots, cotton||Indian corn,||for|
|sq. miles.||sq. miles.||sq. miles.||tobacco, etc.||226,000||export,|
|168,000 sq. m.||sq. miles.||143,000|
|Arable land unassigned||1,200,000||square miles.|
|Deduct for cities, towns, parks, and reserves of all kinds||200,000||""|
|Reserve for future use||1,000,000||""|
|Forest, mountain, arid, etc., not counted, about 1,000,000 square miles, not included in these lines or squares.|
Arable land assumed to be 2,000,000 square miles in the outer lines of the diagram.
No reduction on area cultivated on prospective improvement in the present methods of farming, although it may be assumed that the prospective increase of crop per acre will exert great influence.
If the facts should be in 1930 consistent with Mr. Hyde's "speculation" it would therefore appear that our ability to meet the domestic demand of 1930 with proportionate export of cattle, provisions, and dairy products, and to set apart a little patch of land for the export of 1,226,000,000 bushels of wheat raised at the rate of only 13.4 bushels per acre from 143,000 square miles of land will be met by the cultivation of not exceeding 700,000 square miles out of 2,000,000 available.
I should not venture to question the conclusions emanating from the Department of Agriculture, or the deductions of so eminent a scientist as Sir William Crookes, had I not taken the usual precaution of a business man in studying a business question. I went to the men who know the subject as well as the figures on which statistics are to be compiled.
Being supplied by the Popular Science Monthly with one hundred proofs of the first nine and a half pages of the December article in which the terms of the problem are stated, I sent those proofs to the chiefs of the experiment stations and to the secretaries of agriculture in all the States from which any considerable product of wheat is now or may be hereafter derived; also to many makers of wheat harvesters; to the secretaries of Chambers of Commerce, and to several economic students in the wheat-growing States. This preliminary study was accompanied by the following circular of inquiry:
To the Chiefs of the Agricultural Experiment Stations and others in Authority:
Calling your attention to the inclosed advance sheets of an article which will by and by appear in the Popular Science Monthly, I beg to put to you certain questions.
If the matter interests you, will you kindly fill up the blanks below and let me have your replies within the present month of October, to the end that I may compile them and give a digest of the results? I shall state in the article that I am indebted to you and others for the information submitted.
1. What proportion of this area do you believe to be arable land of fair quality, including pasture that might be put under the plow?
2. What proportion is now in forest or mountain sections which may not be available for agriculture for a long period?
3. What has been done or may be done by irrigation?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4. What proportion of the arable land above measured should you consider suitable to the production of wheat under general conditions such as are given in the text, say, a stable price of one dollar per bushel in London?
5. To what extent, in your judgment, is wheat becoming the cash or surplus crop of a varied system of agriculture as distinct from the methods which prevail in the opening of new lands of cropping with wheat for a term of years?
What further remarks can you add which will enable me to elucidate this case, to complete the article and to convey a true impression of the facts to English readers?
|Your assistance in this matter will be gratefully received.|
To this circular I received twenty-four detailed replies, containing statistics mostly very complete; also many suggestive letters, in every case giving full support to the general views which I had submitted in the proof sheets. It has been impossible for me to give individual credit within the limits of a magazine article to the gentlemen who have so fully supplied the data. Space will only permit me to submit a digest of the more important facts in a table derived from these replies:
|Name.||from returns made to my inquiry.||From United|
|Area of State.||Arable.||Suitable to|
I do not give the data of the Eastern and Southern States, and I have selected only the most complete data of the other States, choosing the more conservative where two returns have been made from one State. .
The foregoing States produced a little over one third of the wheat crop of 1897. They comprise a little over one third the area of the land of the United States, excluding Alaska.
The list covers States like Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, now very fully occupied relatively to Texas, Montana, and Idaho, as yet but sparsely settled.
Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington combined far exceed the above list in wheat production; but, as I have no complete data from these States, I can only say that the national or census statistics, as far as they go, develop corresponding conditions to those above given. The very small product of Texas and Montana, even of Idaho, as compared with the claimed potential, will attract notice, and perhaps excite incredulity. But let it be remembered that in 1880 the Territory of Dakota yielded less than 3,000,000 bushels of wheat, while in 1898 the two States of North and South Dakota, formerly in one Territory, claim to have produced 100,000,000 bushels. Perhaps it will then be admitted that the potential of Montana, and even of Idaho, may be attained in some measure corresponding to the reports from those States; but as yet their product is a negligible quantity, as that of Dakota was only twenty years since.
Again, let it be remembered that Texas will produce a cotton crop, marketed in 1898-'99, above the average of the five ante-war crops of the whole country, and nearly equal to the largest crop ever grown in the United States before the war. Texas could not only produce the present entire cotton crop of the United States but of the world, on but a small part of her land which is well suited to cotton. When these facts are considered, perhaps the potential of that great State in wheat and other grain, in cattle and in sheep, as well as in cotton, may begin to be comprehended.
The writer is well aware that this treatment of a great problem is very incomplete, but it is the best that the leisure hours of a very busy business life would permit. If it discloses the general ignorance of our resources, the total inadequacy of many of our official statistics, the lack of any real agricultural survey, and the necessity for a reorganization and concentration of the scientific departments of the Government as well as of a permanent census bureau, it will have served a useful purpose.
If it also serves to call attention to the meager average crops and the poor quality of our agriculture as a whole down to a very recent period, it may suggest even to those to whose minds the statistics of the past convey but gloomy and "doubtful views" of the future, that the true progress in scientific agriculture could only begin when substantially all the fertile land in the possession of the Government had either been given away or otherwise distributed. So long as "sod crops" and the single-crop system yielded adequate returns to unskilled farmers, no true science of agriculture could be expected, any more than a large product of wool can be hoped for in States where it has been wittily said that "every poor man keeps one cur dog, and every d—d poor man keeps two or more."
Finally, if I shall have drawn attention to the very effective work which is being done in the agricultural experiment stations by men of first-rate ability, I shall have drawn attention to a great fact. This work has already led to a complete revolution from the
old practice of maltreating-land, and to the renovation of soils that had been partially exhausted. Governor Henry A. Wise, of Virginia, long since condemned the old methods of Southern agriculture by telling his hearers, "The niggers skinned the land and the white men skinned the niggers." We are changing all that by new and progressive methods. I hope that in this recognition of the work of the experiment stations I shall have made some return for the attention which has been given to my inquiry by so many of my correspondents that the space assigned me forbids a list of my authorities being given by name.
When the suggestion is made from the Department of Agriculture that all that science has yet accomplished has been to stop a tendency to a lessened production from the land now under the plow, and when it is even suggested that in 1930 the present meager average of crops per acre may still exist, it seems to me that little credit is given to the good work already accomplished in the short period in which the separate Department of Agriculture has been represented in the Cabinet, especially in the last five or six years, while the suggestion itself shows very little consideration of the great work of the experiment stations.
Unless it can be proved that my correspondents and myself have entered into a conspiracy to mislead the public in dealing with the potential of this country in wheat production, nearly all the deductions from the figures of the past must be considered mere statistical rubbish. These statistics cover sections and States in which wheat should never be grown or attempted in competition with the true wheat soils and climate. As well might misplaced iron furnaces, built to boom city lots where there are no favorable conditions for the production of iron, be included in an average and held up as a standard of our potential in iron and steel production.
In my efforts to discover the rule of progress in the arts and occupations of the people of this country, it has become plain that in ratio to the application of science and invention to every art the quantity of product is increased, the number of workmen is relatively' diminished, the price of the product tends to diminish, while the wages or earnings of those who do the work are augmented. I have investigated many branches of industry, and find evidence conclusive to my own mind that such is the law of industrial development. This rule is subject to temporary variations under the restriction of statutes. In my own judgment, the so-called protective principle or policy of interference with commerce by imposing fines on foreign imports has retarded the progress of the specially protected arts, and has in some measure obstructed the diversity of manufactures; but the opposite policy of absolutely free trade in our domestic traffic over a greater area and among a much larger number of people than have elsewhere secured their own liberty has been so much more potent in its progressive influence as to have lessened the evils of the restrictions on foreign trade.
According to my observation, all the efforts to regulate railroad charges by State legislation and under the interstate commerce act have greatly retarded the progress of the railway, and have deprived great States, notably Texas, of any service at all commensurate to the demand which might otherwise have been supplied to the mutual benefit of the owners of the railways and the inhabitants of the State. The most serious retarding influence, especially evil in its effect upon farmers, was the useless panic of 1893, caused by the silver craze—that is to say, by the effort to enact a force bill by which the producers of our great crops would have been compelled to accept money of half the purchasing power of that to which their industry had been long adjusted. This caused a temporary paralysis of industry, in which I think none suffered so much as the farmers of the country.
But admitting these temporary variations, I find the same rule governing the products of the farm that governs the mine, the factory, and the workshop—namely, a lessening of the number occupied in ratio to the product; a great reduction in the cost of labor; an increased return in due proportion of the skill and intelligence of the farmer; a rapid reduction in the farm mortgages, ending at the present date in making the farmers of the grain-growing States the creditors of the world, especially those occupied upon wheat.
But in the development of this progress we find the reverse of the practice in the factory and the workshop. The most important applications of science and invention led first to what might be called the manufacture of wheat on an extensive method of making a single crop on great areas of land. That phase has about spent its force; the great farms are in process of division; the single-crop system has about ended; the intensive system of making a larger product from a lessened area with alternation and variation in crops is rapidly taking the place of former methods.
Therefore, while many branches of manufacturing tend more and more to the collective method, the tendency in agriculture is more and more to individualism in dealing with the land itself, coupled with collective ownership in the more expensive farm machinery, in creameries, cheese factories, and the like. We are apparently at a halfway stage in this revolution of agriculture. The intelligent and intensive methods of breeding cattle and sheep is also rapidly taking the place of the semibarbarous conditions of the ranch.
If these points are well taken, the very suggestion that we must compute the land which should be under the plow in 1890 in order to supply the needs of 130,000,000 people on the basis of the imperfect statistics and inadequate data of the past, becomes almost an impertinence. It is much more probable that the 400,000 square miles which now meet the needs of 75,000,000 people, with an enormous excess for export, will in 1930 still suffice for the domestic supply of 130,000,000 people, with a proportionate export corresponding to the present.
If the product of the farms of the West now yielding the largest crops, or of the renovated lands of the South now yielding the best crops, be taken as the average standard of the near future, as they should be, then it may be true in 1930, as it is now, that one fifth of the arable land of this country when put under the plow will still suffice for all existing demands, the remainder of our great domain extending the promise of future abundance and welfare to the yet greater numbers who will occupy the land a century hence.
I may add that in the course of a very friendly correspondence with Sir William Crookes, while we are still at variance in our estimates of the area which may be converted to the production of wheat in this country without trenching upon any other product, we are wholly at an agreement on a most material point. I quote from one of his letters: "Under the present wasteful method of cultivation there will be in a limited number of years an insufficient supply of wheat. Apply artificial fertilizers judiciously, and the supply may be increased indefinitely." I would only venture to add to the judgment of so eminent a writer the words "or natural," to the end that the paragraph should read, "Apply artificial or natural fertilizers judiciously, and the supply can be increased. indefinitely."
Many years ago I was asked among others, "What would be the next great discovery of science or invention?" To which I replied, "A supply of nitrogen at low cost." Has not that discovery been made in the recent development of the functions of the bacteria which, living and dying upon the leguminous plants, dissociate the nitrogen of the atmosphere and convert it through the plant to the renovation of the soil? Is not the invention of methods of nitrifying the soil by distributing the germs of bacteria one of the most wonderful discoveries of science ever yet attained? Can any one yet measure the potential of any given area of land in any part of this country in the production of any one of its great crops? That there is a limit may be admitted. Can any one venture to say that any of our average crops yet approach beyond a small fractional measure the true limit of production, whatever it may be, either in cotton, maize, wheat, or any other product of the soil?
In this, as in many other developments of the theory of evolution, the factor of mental energy, which is the prime factor in all material production, may have been or is almost wholly ignored. We are ceasing to treat the soil as a mine subject to exhaustion, but we have as yet made only a beginning in treating it as an instrument of production which will for a long period respond in its increasing product in exact ratio to the mental energy which is applied to the cultivation of the land.
- I have been permitted to review the detailed statements of the accounts of one of the great enterprises which I have called the manufacture of wheat on a large scale on various large farms, separated one from another but under one control, aggregating more than twenty thousand acres, in North Dakota. They are managed mainly from a long distance through agents and foremen, therefore at a relative disadvantage compared to a farmer owning his own land, acting as his own foreman, and saving heavily in expense. Such farmers, making no charge for their own time, are computed to have a cash advantage of one dollar an acre.
A large part of this land has been cropped in wheat for twenty-four years, one farm of six thousand acres showing an average in excess of eighteen bushels per acre for the term of seventeen years. The details of the product of other farms are not given, but this may be considered a rule. Of course, this cropping can not be carried on indefinitely. The land is now being allowed to rest, and other crops, such as maize, oats, barley, millet, and timothy, are to some extent being raised in rotation, but not to the extent in which individual wheat farms are now passing into rotation, especially in Minnesota.
In this enterprise the manufacture of wheat is the main purpose, but under the changed conditions on the small farms in Minnesota wheat is becoming rather the cash or excess crop in a rotation of four; at present, in North Dakota, wheat constitutes about three fourths the total product.
In these accounts of this great farm are included all charges of every name and nature except what might be called the rent of land: the labor, the harvesting and thrashing, the general expense including the foreman and all other charges; the office expenses, the taxes,
the insurance, and, when summer fallow is introduced, the cost of the summer fallow. Suffice it that these figures for 1898—a year of high charge for seed and one which yielded a fraction over the average in product—prove conclusively an average of all charges of less than five dollars an acre for the cost of the product. In different years under these conditions the cost of the wheat varies from a little over twenty cents to approximately thirty-five cents per bushel. The cost of oats, which are cultivated with the wheat mainly for use on the farms, ranges from ten to fifteen cents per bushel.
These are facts. The pending question in this discussion is, How much land, occupied by owners but not now in use, is there in this section of the country on which similar results can be attained, with better results by individual farmers who possess mental energy and practical skill? The figures given by the chiefs of the agricultural experiment stations may rightly be taken in the solution of this question